American Populism: A Dead Idea, Part 2

Returning to the theme of Populism I wrote about several weeks ago, a second article in the Salon series (Where Are the Peasants With Pitchforks?) takes a look into how the different parties view the specter of American populism and its uses in national politics. Michael Lind, the author the article, argues that the seemingly reversed strategies of the two dominant parties make a rather lot of sense when the outward layer is pulled back and the traditional fears of both sides are revealed.

The Jacksonian Democrats of the 19th century, like the neo-Jacksonian Republicans of the 21st century, have believed, not without reason, that wealthy, educated Northeastern elites will always dominate a powerful federal government and sacrifice the interests of the Northern white working class and white Southerners and Westerners.

The strategy of today’s Democratic base is equally rational, given its core constituencies. The post-’60s coalition of minorities that forms the Democratic base naturally favors a strong federal government to protect the civil rights of its members from the bigotry of local racial and religious majorities.

The odd thing, at least initially, is that the Republicans are often seen as the party which favor the elite, the wealthy, and big pro-business anti-government policies which you think would be beneficial to the wealthy northeastern educated elites. The Democrats, which are seen as the party of the people, favor the policies which strengthen the central government, which can often be argued as antithetical to the interests of the common people.

The author makes the point that the seemingly paradoxical logic employed by the political parties actually makes strategic sense. I’m inclined to agree. The Republican party, especially during the last election, was making no attempt to mask it’s play to populism. Tea Party candidates, railing against the central government, played on the fears of the people. That the government would institute ‘death panels’ in health care, that the bailouts would be massive wastes of money, that Obama’s brand of government is socialism (read: communism, because apparently the candidates making this argument did not understand the distinction). The Republican brand of populism revolved around the invocation of fear at the local and state levels in order to repulse the federal incursions which the party at large was imagining.

The Democrats, for their piece, view themselves as the saviors of the people, often arguing against the influences of big business in favor of more regulation, and usually at the federal level. As the author notes, this stems from the traditionally urban-centric power bases of the Democratic party – Hispanics, Blacks, and Jews. In order to represent these votes, the democrats reformed policy at the federal level, the only way to force what they wanted through. However, the problems arose when the Democrats stopped turning to federal policy to prevent populism from becoming repressive, but continued to turn to federal policy to fix all of their problems. Ignoring the local and state levels for the high stakes federal arena has hurt the democratic populist movements, and left them arguing as populists, but politicking as the elite.

If the democrats want to take back the mantle of the party of the people they will need to abandon the use of federal regulations to solve all of their woes and also abandon their almost exclusive focus on urban centers of power. Instead, the will need to focus on winning back the state and local levels of government and infrastructure plans which fit to both urban transit needs and rural stretches of land. An approach such as this will help the democrats avoid the “dark side of populism” while reaching back out to the people.

The republicans, for their part, have been very good at hitting their targets and goals, especially in the last election. The party infrastructure showed how the dark side of populism – the use of fear to combat federal policy expansion – is extremely effective. In response to the title of the article – where are the peasants with pitchforks? The answer is they aren’t in the capital, they are everywhere else.



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